The Fact Checker video team is trying something new. We’ve produced a three-part miniseries focused on international stories where online misinformation led to real-life — and often troubling — consequences. We aim to unravel what happened and reveal what that means for us.

In case you missed it, our first episode visited the Central African country of Gabon, where a missing president and a suspect video helped spark an attempted coup.

Our second story takes us to the south of India, where misinformation on WhatsApp led to a fatal mob attack.

The Facts

On July 13, 2018, five friends took a road trip to the south Indian village of Handikera, which is in the state of Karnataka.

The five men, Salham al-Kubassi, Mohammed Salman, Mohammed Azam, Mohammed Afroz and Noor Mohammad, traveled to the outskirts of town for a picnic. They drove by children getting out of school and offered them chocolates. Kubassi is from Qatar and had brought some chocolates with him on his visit to India.

Rema Rajeshwari, the district police chief in Telangana, is familiar with this case and has spearheaded initiatives to educate local communities in India about false child-kidnapping rumors on WhatsApp.

“It’s quite usual that Indians or friends who come from abroad, they always carry a box of candies for the children,” Rajeshwari said.

Rumors about child kidnappings had been circulating across India for months via WhatsApp and other social media platforms. The stories increased parents’ suspicion of outsiders in small rural communities.

“These types of videos and images were being circulated to create panic,” Rajeshwari said. “There was this state of mass hysteria in many parts, because these villages saw these videos and really believed that yes, there is a gang out there that is going to take their children.”

We visited this village in Karnataka to find people who witnessed the events that took place that day. According to eyewitness accounts, adults working in the fields saw the visitors handing chocolates to the children and believed they were kidnappers. The villagers approached the visitors and started deflating the tires of their car. Quickly realizing they were in danger, three of the men, Kubassi, Salman and Azam, escaped in the car, leaving Afroz and Mohammad behind.

Before the men escaped, villagers sent video of the friends and their car to a WhatsApp group in the neighboring village of Murki. The videos identified the men as child kidnappers and warned the people in Murki that they were on the run.

Villagers in Murki placed a roadblock to stop the car. A mob of hundreds dragged the men from the car and started beating them. Police were eventually called, but the mob was too large to control.

The violent attack killed Azam and injured the other two men. Azam was 32, a father and a software engineer from Hyderabad.

Azam was not the first innocent person in India to die because of misinformation on WhatsApp about child kidnappings. India is WhatsApp’s largest market, with more than 400 million users. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has 2 billion users worldwide.

In the first half of 2018, more than two dozen people died in India in incidents connected to WhatsApp rumors.

In 2018, one viral video claimed to show a child being kidnapped by a motorcyclist. But the video had been deceptively edited and was missing key context. It excluded information that the video was produced as a child safety campaign by Roshni Helpline, a group in Pakistan.

Pratik Sinha, the editor of Alt News, a fact-checking outlet in India, blames a lack of media literacy and government inaction for the uncontained spread of fake news. “There’s a huge section of population which is getting access to mobile and Internet services for the first time in their lives, and they do not have the capacity to figure out what is authentic and what is not,” Sinha said.

All social media platforms face this problem, but WhatsApp is encrypted, making it difficult to trace and curb the spread of rumors.

The closed nature of WhatsApp means most people are using it to communicate with friends and family, people who are considered trustworthy. The ability to forward to large groups of people also increases the chances for false information to be misinterpreted as fact.

Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher on the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University, said viral false news often focuses on highly emotional content such as child kidnapping.

“Disinformation can readily find a home and exacerbate a lot of those long-standing problems that societies are currently grappling with,” Bradshaw said. “Misinformation on these platforms is a critical threat in that sense, because it's serving to further incite violence or hate and further inflame the preexisting divisions.”

After the spike in rumors and violence in 2018, WhatsApp took action. The app labels when a message has been forwarded and limits forwarding to five group chats. According to WhatsApp, that move reduced forwarded messages in India by more than 25 percent. The platform also worked with local expert groups to create digital literacy training to teach users how to spot fake news.

A full list of WhatsApp’s safety efforts in India can be found here.

“WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users in India and around the world. WhatsApp has made significant product changes and worked with partners across civil society, engaged with relevant government authorities and other technology platforms to help address the harmful consequences of misinformation. While there is no single action that can resolve the complex challenges contributing to misinformation, we are committed to helping do our part to ensure that WhatsApp continues to be a force for good in India,” a WhatsApp representative wrote as an official response.

The Bottom Line

While violence linked to rumors spread on WhatsApp has decreased, misinformation on social media platforms remains a problem in India — and in other countries.

“When we look at these rumors on social media, we know that they are not dying down,” Sinha said. “They keep circulating. It is not the speed at which the rumor is traveling, it is the sustained nature of it, which is a bigger problem.”

Without government action to enforce consequences for spreading fake news and confidence in law enforcement to prevent violent mob attacks, the problem will continue, he said.

The video above is part of a YouTube series from the Fact Checker. To catch up on past episodes, and not miss future ones, subscribe here.

Kartheek Kumar in India contributed to this report.

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